What if Princess Charlotte hadn't died?

Stephen Webbe, Historian Stephen Webbe Historian
A picture of the tombstone of Princess Charlotte in St George's Chapel

How might history have changed if Princess Charlotte hadn’t died in childbirth in 1817?

Charlotte’s safe delivery of an heir would have sparked an eruption of joy across Britain, sending flames into the night sky and peals of bells ringing out across fields and rooftops. 

A court at Claremont

The nation’s eyes would have been fixed on Claremont as Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold settled into married life together and the little prince grew apace. No doubt, they would have continued to beautify the house and grounds of their royal retreat.

A court-in-waiting would almost certainly have blossomed at Claremont, and distinguished society and political figures would have trundled down to Esher to pay their respects to the Heiress Apparent.

Politics would presumably have been an increasingly frequent topic of conversation at the Claremont dinner table as Princess Charlotte pondered her eventual accession.

Royal lines redrawn

All things being equal, the princess would have ascended the throne as Queen Charlotte in 1830 on the death of her father, George IV. That would have utterly changed Britain’s royal line of succession.  

There would have been no unseemly race among the elderly royal dukes to marry German princesses to clear their debts and produce an heir. Notably, the Duke of Kent wouldn’t have felt the need to discard his devoted French mistress and marry Victoire, the Dowager Duchess of Leiningen, and present Princess Victoria to the nation.

If Queen Victoria hadn’t existed, neither would her successors: Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII, George VI and Queen Elizabeth II. And the Victorian Age would have been the Charlottian one.

Queen Victoria
A painting of Queen Victoria as a young woman
Queen Victoria

Imagining the Charlottian era

All the evidence is that Princess Charlotte would have become one of Britain’s great queens. Well-educated (under the Bishop of Salisbury’s guidance), she was a peppery mixture of patriotic pride, keen intelligence, regal hauteur, strong opinions, good works and boisterous good humour. 

Her affection for the British people and her taste for social reform made her a natural Whig - to the dismay of the Tory-inclined Bishop of Salisbury. That she was animated in all she did by her strong Christian faith would no doubt have cheered him.  

Pluck worthy of a future monarch

Charlotte’s love of her future subjects was matched by her passion for British history. She was a great admirer of Elizabeth I and her legendary courage.

She recalled her Tudor heroine when she was on holiday in Weymouth in 1815. While cruising Weymouth Bay aboard the brig-sloop HMS Zephyr, the 74-gun HMS Leviathan, a veteran of Trafalgar, came across Zephyr and fired a 21-gun salute. Leviathan’s captain rowed over to Zephyr in his barge, where she greeted him and expressed her eagerness to inspect his ship.  

" Queen Elizabeth took great delight in her navy, and she never entertained any fear of going on board a man-of-war in an open boat, in whatever state the sea might be; why, then, should I?"
- Princess Charlotte Augusta

The Bishop of Salisbury, standing next to her, wondered whether her father, the Prince Regent, would approve of her being in an open boat in a rough sea. Charlotte turned to him and exclaimed: “Queen Elizabeth took great delight in her navy, and she never entertained any fear of going on board a man-of-war in an open boat, in whatever state the sea might be; why then should I?”

When the barge reached Leviathan, Charlotte refused to be hoisted aboard in a chair of state, preferring to scale the side of the warship with the captain following behind holding down her skirts.

Having seen over Leviathan, she told the captain she had never been quite so intrigued by anything in all her life and climbed back down the ship’s side. It was pluck worthy of a future monarch.

Had Charlotte become queen in 1830, she would have inherited a vigorous, self-confident nation with a growing navy that not only protected a growing empire, but kept the peace of the world for most of the nineteenth century. Her delight in reigning would have known no bounds.